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Decision fatigue

Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue? by JOHN TIERNEY

Long article. Summary excerpt:
The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice.
I'm going to summarize the results of several studies mentioned in the article. I don't know whether they were good studies or whether the results also apply outside the experimental conditions.
  • Parole boards are more likely to grant parole earlier in the day. (This is an example of the second shortcut described in the excerpt: Do nothing.)
  • Avoiding temptation (or exercising self-control) causes fatigue and leaves a person less likely to avoid other temptations in the near future or more likely to give up on difficult tasks.
  • Having to make a series of choices causes the same thing.
  • Decision-making is more fatiguing than mental effort spent on studying information or following directions.
  • If you are making a series of complex choices such as configuring a car to purchase, you are more likely to going with whatever is presented as the "default" later in the process. If the first set of choices is especially complex, for example, picking among 50 different suit fabrics for a bespoke suit, you'll start going for defaults sooner.
  • Choice-making fatigue is worse when you have to consider tradeoffs, such as whether you can afford to purchase a staple at a discount. This means poor people are more likely to be in a state of decision fatigue.
  • Consuming something sugary mitigates the effects of decision fatigue, whereas experiencing pleasure does not. This is true for dogs as well as humans.
  • Sugar combats decision fatigue because the activity of the brain changes when it is low on glucose.
  • Parole boards are more likely to grant parole immediately after a meal.
  • People spend 3-4 hours a day exercising self-control.
  • Desires for relaxing and goofing off are harder to resist than other desires.
  • People do best at decision-making if they understand that decision-making ability fluctuates and gets depleted, and structure their life to avoid making too many decisions and avoid making decisions late in the day.
A lot of nitpicking can be done about this article, especially the way it conflates decision-making and what it calls "avoiding temptation" (which is not well-defined). Overall I think it's getting at something real.

But having read all this, what I don't understand is, if this is true, why are choices seemingly continually increasing? Why are there 50 different suit fabrics if it makes people tired and cranky to decide among them?

This entry was originally posted at http://firecat.dreamwidth.org/739580.html, where there are comments.


( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 19th, 2011 03:25 am (UTC)
same effect

if you have 5 choices, none of which are exactly right, there is more work to do than if you have 50 choices some of which are exactly right

I see this in design situations (font & colour for instance). If I'm looking for a 1930s-style geometric typeface suitable for a poster, it's less work finding exactly the right one out of a library of thousands than trying to make something that isn't quite right do the job.
Aug. 19th, 2011 03:30 am (UTC)
Good point, I hadn't thought of that.

I think in many cases it would take a lot of experience to get to the point where you could say "This one is exactly right."
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 19th, 2011 10:29 am (UTC)
Seems like in almost every area of life these days, if you have enough money, you can hire someone to "design" stuff, from your living room to your wedding, to your website, to your vacation, to your entire life

Yep. And if you are content to fumble along making things up, rather than letting someone design it for you, there's a whole passel of Disapproving Societal Messages standing outside your window with baseball bats. (I feel this way especially about the "life design" part.)

It's some sort of psychological experience of luxury

Good point, says the person who just spent 3 hours shopping for JUST THE RIGHT SET of half a dozen $2 pens.
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 20th, 2011 01:37 am (UTC)
"The basic concept of "aspirational marketing" is reaching consumers and helping them deal with, ameliorate and understand issues of social place and personal identity." -- Nancy Koehn

I think she means "Pay money so that they can believe they are of higher status."
Aug. 19th, 2011 01:24 pm (UTC)
" Even if people feel stymied standing front of a salad bar with 2947 kinds of dressing, they still want all those options"

Nellorat has a good point. Once you've found which dressing you like best, then it becomes the default in future. So the delay only happens once per customer.

The salad bar can make it easier, by grouping the dressings by type and sub-type, so you can quickly eliminate whole sections.

Part of the problem with packaged crackers in a supermarket, is that they're grouped by brand not type, and the most popular default ('original flavor') isn't packaged distinctively. So it's not so much a decision problem as just randomly seeking through the jumble to find what you already know you like.
Aug. 19th, 2011 07:36 pm (UTC)
PS to my own. I want to thank Firecat for a very helpful discussion here. The NYT article is good, and the comments here are sparking some good ideas for how to cope.

On crackers, I'll try going to that aisle not with a 'browsing' attitude but just 'ruthlessly ignore everything not labeled "original" '. ;-)

I've already been resolving that when in doubt, follow the thought that will leave me in better shape to deal with whatever may come up next -- whether that be a major decision, or a road rage incident, or whatever. This discussion has made me more conscious of what distractions to avoid.

Aug. 19th, 2011 12:04 pm (UTC)
Yes! And I'd add to this: in everyday life, once you find the right thing, that can become the default, obviating future choices. With the almost-right thing, you keep looking. I think this happens a lot with staples of clothing, such as jeans or everyday underpants.

Hmmm...and jeans and t-shirts becoming more popular reduces necessity for choice, at least along one axis. (I can buy various t-shirts but they usually fit more or less the same.)

I definitely think that routine is the major factor that offsets decision fatigue. For instance, it's been noted that of all food choices, almost everyone is most conservative when it comes to breakfast, and most people have something similar every day. That makes sense: before I've waken up enough to have the energy to choose, I go for a routine/default.
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 19th, 2011 10:26 am (UTC)
wonder if this plays somehow into the sugar cravings some diabetics get

Good question. I know that part of the issue is that muscles stop responding to insulin's message (Muscles: "We're hungry!" Insulin: "Hey, there's sugar out here, come and get it!" Muscles: "What, we didn't hear you...WE'RE HUNGRY") but I don't know if the brain also stops responding. But I wouldn't be surprised.

Also, it's my experience that decision-making can become virtually impossible if the decision is big enough.

Especially if the decision involves choosing to act in ways that you know will cause you pain and stress.

This didn't come up in the article but I think that bit goes a long way toward explaining why some people stay too long in bad relationships. (Another topic I posted a link to recently.) The decision to leave feels more painful than the non-decision to stay even though staying will involve more abuse.

I imagine that for people with atypical brain functioning, decision fatigue could set in a lot faster.

It certainly does for me, when my depression or brain fog is acting up.
Aug. 19th, 2011 05:38 am (UTC)
Thank you for sharing this. It's definitely an interesting subject, and something to keep in mind.

I suspect the answer to your question has something to do with not many people knowing about this, and also something to do with wanting to have the "perfect" choice available for the greatest number of people.
Aug. 19th, 2011 12:14 pm (UTC)
I do think that decision making and "self-control"--which I a more likely to call "habit change"--come down to many of the same things psychologically, in that each is the opposite of default. If I'm watching my bg, each act of eating is considered consciously; if I'm not, then I can default to eating when I feel like it.

If I'm right that default/habit is the alternative to decision fatigue, then one major set of decisions in life is what I have to keep deciding about and what I can do by default. A lot of this for me comes down to how good/reliable I think my habits are in that specific area/way--less, perhaps surprisingly, than comes down to how often and how severely the situations change.

This contrast also helps explain why I don't find teaching nearly as tiring as that many constant decisions would seem to indicate: by now much of what I say is, not rote, but well-worn paths that I decide to go down, & how far, but which often flow more unconsciously once that's chosen. And/but there are enough new challenges to keep me interested.
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 19th, 2011 07:25 pm (UTC)
Definitely, feel free to share anything I post publicly. (And I like it best if you let me know that you've done so.)
Aug. 19th, 2011 06:11 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this post! The bit about sugar is very useful for me right now. We're looking for a house, and my take-away is that I should eat a meal just before we go to look at houses each time, because then I'm less likely to be all, "Ehhhhh, whatever."

In terms of your last question, I think there are two problems. One is that people don't understand decision making costs and fatigue. That part I was already aware about in terms of studies about shopping and selection and how having two many choices can be paralyzing. The problem is that people *think* that having more selection is always better, and so they selectively go to businesses that offer them more choices. If you want to buy a television, are you more likely to go to a store where you can see two or three models, or go to a store where you can see twenty? Probably the latter. And so stores offer more options because it makes people shop there. Remember that they're in the business of making money, not in the business of making you happy. If you act against your own best interests in shopping, then the stores are going to cater to your self-destructive selectiveness, not to what would be good for you but earn them less business.

The other, though, I think is where having more options becomes more complex. I think more products are hitting the point where they can cater to specific needs. If you have one type of shampoo, then it makes your hair cleaner and it works best for the 'average' person's hair. If you have twenty, then you can have one for oily hair, one for dry hair, one for people with dandruff, etc., etc. Is that bad? Probably not, because it means that people with special needs can get those needs met. I mean, it's exactly this phenomenon that leads to unscented products for people with allergies, which I think most people can agree are a good thing. The other part of this is that people develop loyalties, and so shopping at a place with a large selection can become a way to avoid excessive decision making -- by going with a decision that you've already made. I do this all the time, personally. There's a little drug store near my house, and I often go there first when I need stuff, because I think, "I should shop at the local store so that there will still be a local store tomorrow." However, if they don't have the brand I want, 90% of the time I would rather go to the Shoppers Drug Mart up the street than to actually have to look at all the products they have and choose one. So then I go to Shoppers and get the kind I've already decided upon in the past. Now, you could do this simply if there *were* only a few brands, but everyone has these loyalties to different brands. So by having more, they allow a greater number of people to find the brand they already like and thus avoid having to actively choose. This can go for colours and so on as well as brands -- it's easier for me to pick up a shirt in a colour that I already know looks good on me than to choose another colour, which is why so many of my clothes are one of three colours.

I do recall in University when we had an exchange student from Scandinavia, and a friend of mine and I took him around town to show him where everything was, he was FURIOUS about the drug store because he saw the ridiculous proliferation of selection as an aspect of North American gluttony. He ranted all the way through dinner about how many kinds of soap there were, etc. It really got under his skin.
Aug. 19th, 2011 07:34 pm (UTC)
this is really interesting. just wanted to say. but i can't say anything about it BECAUSE I AM TOO TIRED!

fatigue feels like physical pain to me, and even having to make micro decisions feels like hard labour, so this seemed really relevant to me, even if i can't process it properly right now.
Aug. 19th, 2011 07:35 pm (UTC)
Those things are very true for me too sometimes.
Aug. 20th, 2011 11:34 am (UTC)
i just did an online grocery shop - it just about killed me!
Aug. 20th, 2011 12:02 am (UTC)
I just eliminate certain decisions from my life altogether, which is one of the things that my first extended travel in the developing world did to me. I remember being overwhelmed by first world supermarkets after that, particularly in the cereal aisle, after months of only corn flakes or (once in a while) rice krispies being available.

Ironically, it is decisions about where to travel to that are most likely to overwhelm me now.
Aug. 21st, 2011 02:32 am (UTC)
Thank you for the link!

I find that the decision-making (and logistical) part of my brain is the puniest. It wakes up about 9am (I get up at 5 or 6 am) and goes down about 8pm. I really can't make decisions or do logistical planning after that.

Contrast that with arithmetic -- I am happy to do taxes and stuff like that very early in the morning when I first get up, and can even manage somewhat late at night. I suspect if I did fancier math, that would work fine, too.

I put "decision-making" and "logistics" in the same bucket where logistics is like planning the most efficient shopping trip, where I have to plan the route, remember the items I'm going to buy, and consider the weight/bulk limit of how much stuff I can carry, the hours of the stores, blah blah blah. It sure feels like the same part of the brain. I'm curious about whether the article does the same thing.
Aug. 21st, 2011 03:30 am (UTC)
The article didn't say much about logistics, but it makes sense that they'd be related.

The OH has a very logistics-wired brain but sometimes dislikes making decisions. I wonder if it's because he uses up that resources on logistics.
Aug. 21st, 2011 10:34 pm (UTC)
Now that I've read the article, I find that Tierny puts the decision-making faculty in the same box with self-control, which is not my subjective experience. He also says that we don't subjectively feel that our decision-maker is out of gas when it is out of gas, we just start making crappy decisions.

I thought I could tell when I'm running low on decision-making fuel, and the self-control faculty to be a different part of the brain.

Oh yeah, and it's caffeine rather than sugar that helps me revive my decision-making and planning faculties. I am not sure what I need to do fuel my self-control.
Aug. 21st, 2011 11:30 pm (UTC)
I also disagree with the notion that one can't subjectively tell when the decision-maker is out of gas. Maybe some people can't but I can.

I'm an editor and my job involves making little decisions many times a minute (because the kind of editing work I do is somewhat subjective rather than only correcting grammar/spelling mistakes); maybe I'm more sensitive to noticing when my decision-making ability is changing because of that.

It would be interesting to see some research specifically directed at this.

For me decision-making and self-control do feel like the same part of the brain.

Caffeine works for me too; I'm not sure if that's a direct effect or because it does something to my metabolism to make it make more glucose.
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